BEMIDJI -- A photograph of the late George “Ike” Patton is on the wall above the table where he used to eat breakfast and lunch at Raphael’s Bakery and Cafe in downtown Bemidji. It’s a tribute to one of the many regulars who have helped Raphael’s thrive for 30 years.
Ray (Raphael) and Brenda Sweeney opened the bakery at 319 Minnesota Ave. NW on Feb. 19, 1990. They moved here from Blackduck, where Ray’s father, the late Raphael Sweeney Sr., had operated the Blackduck Bakery since 1973.
Looking over the crowded restaurant on Saturday morning, Brenda smiled as she talked about the loyalty of customers like Patton, a fixture of downtown Bemidji who died in 2018 at age 89.
“They’re all just like family to us,” she said. “We just appreciate them all so much. Ike Patton came in every day for breakfast and lunch. Most of these people here, just like church, they sit in the same spots every day. And if they’re not there we’re on the phone calling, asking if they’re OK.”
The Sweeneys also credit many of their past and present employees for the success of their business, such as longtime workers like baker Mike Pannkuk, who is the first one in the door at 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Raphael’s employs 30 people, about half of them full-time.
“A lot of the longtime people who have been here have been mentors to us, examples to follow,” Ray said, “So we are standing on the shoulders of a lot of these people.”
It has been a family affair for the Sweeneys. Ray and Brenda were classmates at Blackduck High School and both later worked at the Blackduck Bakery. After they were married, they moved to Minneapolis for a few years and worked in the bakery industry there.
“Dad said we should go out and get some new experience,” Ray said.
Brenda added, “We had to make sure this is what we wanted to do.”
Meanwhile, with two young children, Ryan and Megan, the Sweeneys decided to move back to Blackduck. They started looking for a location for a bakery in Bemidji, and in October of 1989 they purchased their Minnesota Avenue building from Naylor’s. By February of 1990, renovations were complete and the bakery opened for business.
Griffy’s Eating Establishment leased the restaurant space until 1996. That’s when Raphael’s expanded.
Ryan Sweeney and his wife, Maria, have joined the family business.
Pannkuk, a baker for 42 years, met the Sweeneys during their time in Minneapolis. He later moved to Bemidji, and has been with Raphael’s for about 18 years.
“I enjoy everything about baking,” Pannkuk said. “If there was anything I didn’t like I probably wouldn’t do it. We want to make sure that everything is made right and we can take care of the customers.”
One of those loyal customers is Willie Stittsworth, who’s there almost every morning playing what he calls a “numbers game” with his son, Corey, and several friends. “Whoever loses the game ends up buying the coffee,” he said with a chuckle.
The Sweeneys opened on a Sunday last May for Willie’s 90th birthday party.
“It’s such a friendly place,” Stittsworth said. “Everybody who meets down there all seem like a happy family together. Plus the food is just tremendous. It’s the food and the people.”